No coach had a more scintillating debut season than UCF’s Josh Heupel in 2018. He led the Knights to an AAC championship, undefeated regular season record and his only loss came to No. 6 LSU in the Fiesta Bowl.
Over the past 15 years, a transcendent season like that would vault Heupel to the cusp of an exponentially more lucrative job in a major conference. The combination of a conference championship and New Year’s Day-caliber bowl puts him on the plane of coaches who’ve authored similar runs and quickly moved on like Urban Meyer (Utah to Florida), Tom Herman (Houston to Texas) and P.J. Fleck (Western Michigan to Minnesota).
But a savvy contractual move by UCF officials – essentially strapping golden handcuffs on Heupel for at least the next two seasons – will likely leave him out of the coaching carousel in the near future.
UCF athletic director Danny White included a clause in Heupel’s contract that features a $10 million buyout if he leaves for another job. That’s an extraordinary amount of money – essentially using the buyout as a weapon – especially when considering that because of tax ramifications a school would have to pay more than $10 million to pluck him from the job.
Heupel genuinely loves the UCF job and its potential, and thanks to the $10 million buyout through the 2020 season, hiring him will be prohibitive to all but the wealthiest of schools. (After UCF’s bowl in 2020, that number drops to half of his remaining compensation, which would be $4.6 million at that point.)
The trend is becoming more prevalent on the assistant coach level, as Houston got a $900,000 buyout from Florida State when they hired Kendal Briles this past offseason. (He’d signed a new contract extension at UH weeks prior.) Some schools are even putting clauses in deal where assistant coaches pay extra if they leave in the first few months, trying to prevent staff room musical chairs.
Houston also locked in new coach Dana Holgorsen with a massive buyout; if he left this season, he’d have to pay nearly $13 million. From there, it decreases to nearly $9 million and $7 million the next two seasons.
“I think it’s smart on the school’s part to protect themselves,” said Matt Kelly, a Charlotte-based attorney who works in the collegiate contract space. “On the school side it’s prudent at a place like UCF or Houston, where coaches have come in and won and left after a year or two.”
Chad Chatlos, who runs college searches for Ventura Partners, pointed to the cautionary tale of a school like Arkansas State, which had four new head coaches in four seasons.
“If you’re a Group of Five school, you know if you have success, it’s going to be hard keeping your guy,” he said. “If someone is going to get your guy after one or two years, you want to protect yourself.”
Here are the hottest coaches in the Group of Five this season:
1. Mike Norvell, Memphis
He’s led Memphis to the AAC title game in each of the past two seasons. Could this be the breakthrough year? Beating Ole Miss at home to open the season would jumpstart buzz of him ending up there down the road. Checks the boxes of the new head coach paradigm – young (37), play-caller and lots of points.
2. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati
No coach has a better opportunity the opening two weeks, as the Bearcats host UCLA on the season’s opening Thursday and play at Ohio State in Week 2. After an 11-2 record and wins over UCLA and Virginia Tech, Fickell can afford to be picky. He’s never lived outside of Ohio, other than for a cup of coffee in the NFL with the Saints during his playing days.
3. Bryan Harsin, Boise State
He’s a remarkable 52-15 at Boise with two conference titles in his five seasons. Harsin is the most accomplished coach on this list, but he’s been picky. This season, not much in his presumed geographic sweet spot (Pac-12 or Big 12) appears likely to open. He has been hurt a bit by being judged through the prism of Chris Petersen’s ridiculous 92-12 run at Boise.
4. Seth Littrell, North Texas
He drew interest from Texas Tech, Colorado and Kansas State last year after going 18-9 the last two seasons. With a senior star at quarterback in Mason Fine and marquee games against SMU, Cal and Houston, there will likely be more suitors this fall.
5. Jason Candle, Toledo
He’s 28-13 through four seasons at Toledo and won the MAC in 2017. Much like Norvell, he fits the hot coaching paradigm of play-caller, quarterback whisperer and author of high-octane offenses. He’ll get plenty of interest from the Big Ten jobs that will inevitably open this season.
6. Bill Clark, UAB
It’s hard to overstate how impressive Clark has been at UAB the past two years, including winning the Eddie Robinson award for Coach of the Year last season. The Blazers went 11-3 and won Conference USA in the program’s second season back after the school temporarily jettisoned the program.
7. Jeff Monken, Army
Army won double-digit games the past two seasons, with the 21 wins being the most over a two-year stretch in school history. The last time Army had won 10 was 1996. Monken’s job rescuing Army from two decades of bad football highlights the superior culture, execution and discipline he’s brought there. Athletic directors will be interested to listen to his openness to a more traditional offensive scheme. Could a school like Illinois or Rutgers be attracted to his success?
8. Lane Kiffin, FAU
The sudden and distinct dip FAU took on the field last season – going 5-7 and missing a bowl – has given skeptical athletic directors another reason to shy away from Kiffin. A double-digit win season could get him back in the conversation.
9. Willie Fritz, Tulane
The Green Wave have the top recruiting ranking among Group of Five schools, as Fritz has won the respect of local coaches and maximized the school’s national brand. He’s been a head coach since 1993 and won everywhere he’s been – JUCO, DII FCS. That would give ADs at disadvantaged schools confidence he could win there.
10. Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech
Another veteran who has shown he can win in difficult zip codes. He’s reached five straight bowl games at Louisiana Tech and also won at UConn and East Carolina. At 55, could he have one more run in him?
11. Blake Anderson, Arkansas State
He’s proven a stabilizing force after Arkansas State cycled through four coaches in four years from 2011-14. Inheriting a roster with just 55 players, he’s gone 31-9 in conference, reached a bowl in all five years and won two league titles.
12. Lance Leipold, Buffalo
He’s won six national titles as a head coach, as he went an astounding 109-6 at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater. His 10-win season at Buffalo got some attention, and he’ll only get more if he figures out a way to recover from the departures of star QB Tyree Jackson (draft) and WR K.J. Osborn (transfer to Miami).
13. Billy Napier, Louisiana
The former Alabama assistant led Louisiana to the Sun Belt title game in his debut season, a surprise 7-7 season that ended with a bowl loss to Tulane. An opportunity looms early when Louisiana opens against Mississippi State in New Orleans.
14. Nick Rolovich, Hawaii
Bounced back from a 3-9 season in 2017 with a bowl bid and an eight-win year. With star quarterback Cole McDonald returning and marquee home games in Week 0 (Arizona) and Week 1 (Oregon State), the opportunity exists for major momentum.
15. (tie) Troy Calhoun, Air Force and Ken Niumatalolo, Navy
Calhoun has reached bowl games in 9 of 12 years. Niumatalolo has done so in 10 of 12. They are proven winners and disciplinarians who could draw interest from programs looking for consistency and stability. They need big years, as Navy went 3-10 last season and Air Force missed bowls the past two seasons.
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